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Students aware of Four Loko risks, keep drinking

By Andrew Katz, For CNN
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Alcohol energy drinks under scrutiny
  • "They treat it just like any other type of alcohol," a student newspaper reporter says
  • Administrators in Maryland are not banning the drinks, but say students should be cautious
  • Washington and Michigan are banning the beverage
  • The caffeinated malt liquor's maker says the product is safe "when consumed responsibly"

College Park, Maryland (CNN) -- Nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, but students at the University of Maryland, College Park, say they're aware of the drink's effects and know their own limits.

So it's no surprise that impending bans on the caffeinated malt liquor in Washington state and Michigan are hard to swallow.

Aaron Feierstein, a 21-year-old student at Maryland, said the drink is similar to another crowd favorite and shouldn't be banned.

"You could go to the bar, and you could have a vodka and Red Bull, and it could have the same effect as a Four Loko," he said. "I don't see the difference."

Feierstein's friend, Luke Alexander, also a 21-year-old student at Maryland, agreed.

'Blackout in a can'?

Students are "more concerned with how it helps them get where they want to be while they're partying than what it does to their body," he said.

Senior Ben Present, a journalism student who covered Four Loko use for the student newspaper, took a more neutral approach.

"They treat it just like any other type of alcohol," he said, but "it's gained a decent notoriety over the month that it's been popular here, and students know at this point that if they're going to drink it, keep it to one."

Four Loko maker Phusion Projects has said "when consumed responsibly," the product is "just as safe as any other alcoholic beverages," and that "consuming caffeine and alcohol together has been done safely for years."

The College Park campus hasn't received reports of negative incidents with Four Loko or competitors like Sparks, Tilt and Joose, said Amanda Long, the university's coordinator of campus alcohol programs.

Administrators are aware of student use, but rather than encourage a ban, they've opted for increased education and outreach through a section of the health center's website devoted to the drinks, and student-run presentations on the dangers of drinking too much of it.

Students should be cautious, Long said, because the drinks contain both depressants and stimulants -- and because the high from caffeine can veil how much alcohol is inside.

"We've got students who are not aware that they're getting more and more intoxicated because the caffeine is masking those signs they're used to feeling," she said. "The more they drink, they're going to get to a point where they've had too much, and they might not realize it until it's too late."

The alcoholic energy drinks come pre-mixed in a 23.5-ounce can and contain as much alcohol as about five beers and the caffeine of a small coffee.

Present, 22, was quick to note that they are similar to their top-shelf counterparts, except in one way.

"It's different from your Red Bull-vodka, because you know what you've ordered with a Red Bull-vodka," he said. "With a Four Loko, it's a big, tall can, and you don't know everything that's in it."

Another difference: the price. One can in College Park sells for between $2.50 to $3.00, or half the cost of a standard bar drink.

"It's a cheap means to an end, and it's a quick means to an end," said Present.

And whether it's the metallic shell, so bright you can almost see your reflection in it, or the flashy sign below, Present said the drinks stand out in a liquor store when looking for alcohol for "pre-gaming" -- drinking before you go out to drink.

While media coverage of Four Loko could push students to sample one out of curiosity, Long said, it's largely served as a learning tool.

"Our goal is to try and make sure they're as educated as possible, so if those articles are containing educational information that's health-related and that's helping students to be more informed," she said, "we're willing to accept that."